Thursday, June 8, 2017

Theory Thursday: "Frankenstein" (1931) is Better Than "The Bride of Frankenstein"

Scene from Frankenstein
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The Mummy is released in theaters this Friday, starting The Dark Universe.
Theory: Frankenstein (1931) is better than The Bride of Frankenstein.

This week marks the launch of yet another cinematic universe. Yes, Universal has decided to launch all of their old monster movies into a new "Dark Universe." While I could go on about how I think the name is dumb, I am secretly hopeful that The Mummy and all subsequent films will course correct the problematic Universal Horror cinematic universe of the 1930's and 1940's. There's already news that they will be doing films in different tones and on different levels of budget. There's plenty to look forward to. However, it makes me nostalgic for the fact that I do love those old school monster movies and would love to see a world where The Wolf Man can interact with The Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll. Now that would be an exciting time.

The one thing that has gotten lost in later years is what made monster movies so appealing to begin with. At least from Universal's background, going back even to Lon Chaney Sr.'s work in the 1920's, these monsters were in some way human and they could possess an empathetic streak that made them difficult to hate. It made them scarier to feel like even with their vague inability to relate, they were something not far removed from society. They were outcasts, and arguably could also serve as a veiled metaphor for LGBT characters during this era. Few films are more indicative of the complicated desire to be heterosexual than director James Whale's two films in the Frankenstein series. It is most apparent in its sequel The Bride of Frankenstein in which Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) comes to terms with his failed creation (The Monster, played by Boris Karloff). While Frankenstein has an existential crisis, The Monster roams the countryside, only finding acceptance in a blind man's company. It builds to Frankenstein building a "Bride" that is meant to remove his homosexuality, but The Monster inevitably refuses to give him that desire.

This is why it's interesting to look at the history of Frankenstein movies both within Universal's original franchise as well as subsequent (and previous) attempts. Original author Mary Shelley probably never intended him to be a gay metaphor; instead having some inspiration from her own tragic miscarriage. Even if he's a fairly juvenile character in theory, I think that Karloff elevates him to the status as the best of the group with only Bela Lugosi's Dracula or Lon Chaney Jr.'s The Wolf Man to really compete. The Dark Universe has the ability to fix one error that these films had: mediocre crossover movies. As much as I love the Universal Horror movies, those later entries (especially House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula) are cynical cash grabs if there ever were any. I know that The Dark Universe currently feels like a bigger, more expensive cash grab, but I hope it will fulfill the possibility of having some cool crossovers down the line.

With all of this said, it reminds me of one thing that's at its core an apples to oranges comparison problem, but has bugged me for years. In light of the Dark Universe bringing these characters to a new generation, I feel it's only right to dedicate this week's column to exploring the franchise that started it all. For most people, the answer of which Universal Horror movie is the best predominantly comes down to The Bride of Frankenstein. Why? For starters, its subtext is a lot more blatant, and Whale's confidence allowed him to be a lot more antagonistic - even giving a cameo to a "Mary and Percy Shelley" couple. He was always into theatrics, and the camp is a result of that. His only benefit is that he also knew how to pull it in for an emotional, existential exploration of the soul. By giving The Monster a voice, we were allowed to better understand him. There's plenty to love about The Bride of Frankenstein, and it's among my all time favorites. However, I must say one thing: Frankenstein is better.

There's probably an outcry to be had at this judgment. Frankenstein is dark and scary. It arguably moves slower and takes awhile to get going. There's no denying that the film is more classically a horror movie. However, it is so much more than Dr. Frankenstein creating a Monster. It's the study of man play God and forming the regret around the havoc he's bestowed upon society. Clive still has a sense of camp to his performance, but his enthusiasm is largely required to make his delusional plan make sense. Whale plays into the slow build while showing the tension behind a potential failure. It's his life obsession. He is a mad scientist the likes of which haven't really ever been portrayed as well. 

It helps that Whale has a theater background, and thus managed to turn the sets into gorgeous dungeons of despair. Every last detail feels intricately placed with the sound design adding to the unnerving vibe of Frankenstein's lair. You are transported to a world that is so detailed and confident that you'll forget that it's a film from 1931, only a few years after talkies became a thing (and frankly those first few years could be pretty rough for acting and pacing). Whale knew how to play up the scares by letting The Monster's birth play out quietly, only ever getting too loud when he snaps to life. In later scenes when The Monster is being chased, the sound of angry dogs is so aggressive that it makes the chase more disturbing. Even for the limitations of the time, of which some corners can be seen, Whale creates a story so packed with visceral emotion that it's easy to see why this became a hit. It had nothing to do with the book (which was largely unfaithful). It had all to do with the atmosphere.

It helped that Karloff remains one of history's greatest character actors. He would go on to play a major role in Universal's original The Mummy (directed by Karl Freund). He had a haunting face and a stature to match. What he brings to that role is the work of dedication. It's important to note that The Monster is essentially a child who learns about the world in real time on screen. There's an antagonistic vibe to it that makes you begin to sympathize with him. He wants to be accepted, but he inevitably looks and thinks too different to ever be. Unlike the sequel, he doesn't speak coherently, so it's impossible to connect on a personal level with him. Instead, we get a disturbing subtext to the "Man playing God" story: is The Monster actually evil?

This is where the franchises go from being merely fun pulp to something deeper and more fascinating. Universal's greatest achievement was making their monsters empathetic. In Whale's film, he manages to draw the line perfectly and gives the audience a choice. In one scene, he is shown playing with a little girl who thinks nothing of his garish appearance. When she tosses a flower into the nearby lake, The Monster mistakes the act as a request to dunk her in the lake. She ends up drowning as The Monster panics. Remember, he has a juvenile sense of the world, so he is just as scared of this unfortunate tragedy as the father carrying his daughter's corpse through town is a few edits later. It's a vague moment that thrusts the viewer into thinking one of two ways: He deserves it, or he is misunderstood. Everything beyond that is dependent on how you personally read that scene. For me, he is misunderstood and is a tragic figure created at the hand of a man with a large ego.

This is essentially what separates Frankenstein from The Bride of Frankenstein. I like how the sequel expands on the universe, but there aren't any moments as engrossing and philosophically complex as that lake toss scene that establishes the fine line between human and monster that these films have. While yes, Frankenstein also has LGBT subtext, it is more rooted in traditional horror that balances the themes with its rich atmosphere of horror. You're left feeling scared because the direction allows you to revel in moments that contradict how you're programmed to feel. Only a few years prior, Lon Chaney Sr. was playing monsters in The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame that were nothing more than a tad ugly. The architecture of horror changed greatly with Frankenstein, and I think it's part of why the film works so well.

If I can share one issue that I generally have with The Bride of Frankenstein, it's that I think it's helped people to misunderstand The Monster. While the subsequent sequels when Glenn Strange began to play him are more indicative of this issue, I think that choosing to add a comical tone gave off the impression that The Monster was a silly character, and one that was largely meant to be campy. I think Whale still manages to give dignity to the story, but I think people take away the idea that a goofy Frankenstein is the way to go. Karloff makes it work, but I still think his performance in the original is a far more complex role because he has to convey so much without too many intelligible lines. There's something lost in the over the top nature that I think contributed to the fall of the franchise into mediocre B-Movie fare. Some did it well, but the balance between laughs and scares is something so delicate that it's easy to misunderstand The Bride of Frankenstein more than why the tone works so well.

I know that this technically doesn't have much to do with The Mummy, but I feel like the Dark Universe is a new land of promise. I'm hoping that Javier Bardem's portrayal of Frankenstein is great. I'm hoping that these films capture the magic of the originals, but on a budget and with better continuity. Considering that The Bride of Frankenstein is proposed to be the next film, I felt that it would be a good time to establish my opinions on two of my favorite movies. Again, it's apples to oranges, but I still think that the original is far and away a more excellent example of what Universal Horror stood for, and what made monster movies so enjoyable to begin with. I could write about how dull I think The Mummy from 1933 was, but that would be a pointless article (because even then, I like it on principle). I'm not mad that some like The Bride of Frankenstein more. I just think that they're selling themselves short in terms of one of the greatest monster movies of all time.

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